.
I

n the wake of 9/11, the United States first launched a campaign against the Taliban and al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan; later a war against Saddam Hussein; and ultimately continued operations against transnational Salafi-Jihadism in the form of al-Qa’ida and its affiliates, and the Islamic State. This global campaign shaped the preponderance of America’s defense and intelligence efforts, changing how the country looked at the world, how it fought, and what it saw as its most pressing threats. For America, the world, in effect, froze in that post-9/11 construct. It was how we defined ourselves, how we categorized the world, and how we oriented ourselves.

Book Review: The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare by Christian Brose, Hachette Books (April 2020).

The world, however, unsurprisingly continued to turn and we are now finding ourselves in a “return to history” with the re-emergence of Great Power Competition in the form of Russian revanchism and China’s rise. Both countries seek to shape their near abroad to their interests. To do so, they aim to ensure that the United States will not be able to counter their aims or ambitions. In this effort, they have proven markedly successful, radically reshaping themselves to counter America’s strengths while aiming to assert their own primacy.

For all the talk of pivots toward Asia, disengaging from the Middle East, “reset” (or overload) with Russia, and ending the Long War, America finds itself locked in a mentality of sub-national conflict. Conversely, Russia and China are asserting themselves on the international stage with the former causing chaos in cyberspace and invading its neighbors, while the latter implements a literal expansionist foreign policy by creating sea bases on rocky atolls in the South China Sea.

Despite a myriad of warnings, the United States largely rested on its laurels, organized for low-intensity conflict, and allowed its high-intensity capabilities to atrophy—this at a time when Russia and China rapidly developed counter capabilities.

Christian Brose, the late Senator John McCain’s senior policy advisor and staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is exceptionally well placed to contextualize the challenge the United States now faces. Having worked directly for one of, if not the, smartest senators on defense policy during a time of significant global challenges, Brose is uniquely placed to provide an insight into where the United States is and, most importantly, where it should be.

Brose’s book, The Kill Chain, is a deep dive into the twin trends of the reemergence of Russia and China as a military threat to the United States and the rapid growth of technology and its impact on national defense. Putting it simply, Brose weighs the United States’ defense enterprise and finds it wanting. For too long, Washington was fixated on low-intensity, sub-national conflict, while Russia and China sought to counter America’s military preponderance. If things were frozen and static this would be a problem, but with the rapid and exponential development of technology, America is rapidly falling behind, even if it doesn’t recognize that it is doing so.

The very thing that enabled America’s military dominance—centralized coordination, highly capable, yet expensive platforms—now represents a vulnerability. America’s JSTARs aircraft was and remains highly capable, but it is defenseless, as are the KC-47 aerial refueling platforms. America’s space assets—gold-plated, incredibly expensive, and highly specialized—are exceptionally vulnerable to Chinese direct ascent anti-satellite weapons. Carrier battle groups, the most powerful constellation of naval ships ever to sail, are a concentration of assets that are now vulnerable to maneuverable ballistic missiles and hypersonic cruise missiles. Taking one of America’s 11 carriers out of action or rendering it non-combat effective would be a devastating blow. Look at the concern associated with the loss of the USS Theodore Roosevelt due to Covid and the potential impact that its absence could well have.

Indeed, even the possibility (and it is now a very real possibility) that Washington could lose a carrier or part of the GPS constellation to a belligerent China could well give policymakers in the White House and Pentagon a moment of pause. None of these platforms are easily replaceable under ideal considerations and certainly not replaceable in the current architecture. Washington does not have satellites sitting in barns waiting to be put into orbit or carriers in dry dock waiting to be christened.

We have the most advanced, most skilled, most capable fighting force on the planet. We spend more than the next eight countries combined on defense, surely, we cannot be equaled or surpassed? That military dominance was unique in history and is now, as Brose expertly explains, rapidly ebbing—if it isn’t already gone.

We have the most advanced, most skilled, most capable fighting force on the planet. We spend more than the next eight countries combined on defense, surely, we cannot be equaled or surpassed? That military dominance was unique in history and is now, as Brose expertly explains, rapidly ebbing—if it isn’t already gone.

The Future is Now

Brose is an enthusiastic guide to the potential implications of advanced technologies on national defense. From artificial intelligence to quantum computing, from autonomous/intelligence machines to long-range fires, Brose covers what advanced technology could mean for America’s military and how it could be integrated into the defense enterprise.

Brose argues that Washington is too fixated on “platforms”—the tanks, planes, satellites, etc.—that make up the armed forces. This platform-centric approach was, perhaps, appropriate for the industrial era and the Cold War, but is woefully insufficient for today’s high-tech, high-speed warfare—the kind pursued by China and Russia. Rather, we should be pursuing “kill chains” or the linkage of sensor, shooter, and effect across services, platforms, and domains. The defense enterprise is too stove-piped and too inefficient. Too many platforms are segregated from one another. In one incredible example, the F-35 and F-22, the most advanced airframes in the world, cannot share data and must exchange targeting information over the radio, pilot-to-pilot.

Many lay readers will certainly be struck by the fact that the technologies highlighted by Brose are not already in use today or widely fielded. It is a quintessential American arrogance that military dominance is taken for granted. We have the most advanced, most skilled, most capable fighting force on the planet. We spend more than the next eight countries combined on defense, surely, we cannot be equaled or surpassed?

That military dominance was unique in history and is now, as Brose expertly explains, rapidly ebbing—if it isn’t already gone. China and Russia, seeing the military successes of the United States in the post-Cold War environment sought to create strategies to counter America’s strengths while, simultaneously, developing their capabilities to exert their political will.

With Russia, the seizure of Crimea and the current operations in Syria are the culmination of Moscow’s increased defense investment and institutional learning of the lessons of its shortcomings in Georgia in 2008 as well as those from the first and second Chechen Wars, although Brose does not connect these conflicts. For Brose, Russia is of declining importance—its economy is a fraction of the United States and China, its population is declining, and, while it can certainly threaten its neighbors, it is very much of secondary importance.

By contrast, the most pressing and long-term threat is China. Beijing’s inexorable rise places it on a trajectory to surpass the United States in terms of GDP and its investment in its military ensures that it is already a peer competitor. China saw America’s military dominance in the 1991 Gulf War and the conflicts in the Balkans, as well as during the 1995-96 Taiwan Crisis and sought to develop a counter-strategy—and they very much did.

From the DF-21 “carrier-killer” ballistic missiles to hypersonic cruise missiles, advanced air defense networks, counter-space capabilities, cyber weapons, and more, China sought to target the sources of America’s military dominance, as well as the nodes of vulnerability.

How Did We Get Here?

This wasn’t always the case and wasn’t always the way American military innovation occurred. “Military mavericks” like Admiral Hyman Rickover, General Bernard Schriever, and Admiral William Moffett all bucked the trend and were able to field the nuclear navy, create the foundation of the ICBM force, and create the aircraft carrier, respectively. To do so required great feats of personal strength, exceptionally committed top cover, and an appreciation of the threat.

“Victory has many fathers, but failure is an orphan” is an appropriate idiom for military innovation. Here, however, there are many fathers to this failure. While Brose is a bit of an apologist for Congress, the Defense Industrial Base, and the Department of Defense, to excuse them entirely is being too cute by half.

Congress is driven by local politics and self-interest. What is best for the district or state is often as equally important as what is best for the Department of Defense and the country. How much of that platform is built in district X, counts for a great deal on Capitol Hill. The horse-trading that is endemic to the budget process ensures that innovation and forward-looking acquisition takes a back seat to the demands of the two- and four-year election cycle. Even the failure of Congress to deliver these flawed budgets on time affects the management of key programs. Continuing resolutions keep zombie programs alive while preventing new investments. That is, sadly, the nature of the American republic. This is, of course, a gross generalization, but to omit it entirely is to be naïve to politics.  

The Defense Industrial Base, for its part, is a self-interested capital-driven beast. What is best for shareholders is equally as important as what is best for the customer, in this case, the Department of Defense and the U.S. government. That is not to say that there are not patriotic, hard-working, committed Americans at these institutions, but it is to say that there is an additional motivation that drives their calculus. Anything not built or serviced by them is a potential dollar lost—innovation and experimentation are not incentivized or something that can be adequately captured on a quarterly profits sheet.

In the Defense Industrial Base’s defense, it often fails to innovate because it is simply not asked to do so. Here is where the Department of Defense is, perhaps, most culpable. The process by which requirements are identified, acquisitions conducted, and budgets created incentivizes the status quo.

Too often the Pentagon is driven by the pursuit of, for the sake of argument, a coffee cup. The Army wants that specific coffee cup because that is what it has always had and what has always worked. That is a requirement. That requirement ignores, however, other more advanced ways, perhaps, of delivering caffeine to the system. Inverting the question and defining the mission or the objective and aligning acquisitions against that is perhaps a better way of getting to the heart of the problem.

Brose touches on this particularly in the latter portion of the book, in which he goes through potential incentives or incentive models to encourage competition and get the best capability into the military the fastest. Defining the mission set or capability is of paramount importance as is working to acquire a solution that meets the military’s needs.

The Silicon Valley-Washington DC Division

While the Department of Defense grew into the byzantine bureaucracy that exists today, fixated on yesterday’s technologies and past successes, Silicon Valley raced ahead, breaking things along the way, but creating the modern consumer information economy. The divide between the two grew as a result of institutional processes, but also by the counter-culture that underpinned much of Silicon Valley and the early internet, but which has warped into a sycophantic profit-seeking parody of itself. Companies that are unwilling to work with the Department of Defense on moral or ethical grounds are more than willing to do business with the Chinese Communist Party to access the Chinese market and its billion consumers.

China will buy or outright steal technology from western companies, companies that are unwilling to work with the Pentagon. It is a modern-day realization of a quote often (and perhaps incorrectly) attributed to Lenin: “the capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” Western companies are willingly—or unwillingly but naively unaware that they are—giving Beijing technologies that could have a defense or military purpose, further eroding America’s military edge.

Overcoming this divide is certainly on the minds of many within the Pentagon and in Silicon Valley. Part of the solution, as outlined by Brose, is the introduction of smart incentives to encourage companies to work with Washington. This is part of the answer. Providing for competitions and solution/capability-oriented outcomes is a great way to bring in new and novel solutions.

This is, however, only part of the solution. What fundamentally needs to change is the acquisition process itself. Brose entertainingly recounts the story of General Milley and the $17 million solicitations for a replacement for the M9 service pistol, in which the general rightly says he could just go to Cabela’s and purchase enough pistols for that $17 million and get a bulk discount. Cabela’s would almost certainly include a free t-shirt.

The acquisition system that exists today does not incentivize innovation, experimentation, or risk-taking at any level. The irony is that many within the Pentagon recognize and acknowledge this shortcoming. Few if any would, if asked, admit that the process works well, if at all. It is recognized so much and so often that alternative acquisitions mechanisms are created to address these failings. In no other institution but the government would a failure of bureaucracy be solved by creating more bureaucracy, but it is done regularly.

The structure that exists today incentivizes business-as-usual and purchasing the same things and the same platforms. The most successful companies are those that know how to game the system and can afford to play at all. The costs of pursuing government business, when compared to pursuing the consumer electronics or information market, are simply prohibitive. It just does not make fiscal sense to go after a government contract.

The Technology Trap

Brose falls into the trap he cautions others of pursuing, technology as a panacea to the military’s problems. Without question the military at a macro level, as he astutely notes, has failed to keep up with the pace of commercial technological innovation. While there are pockets of innovation and examples where the kill chain is being closed regularly—Special Operations Command springs to mind—these are the exception to the rules. Moreover, and more often than not, these examples are tactical, occur in a permissive or dominated environment, and are oriented against non-peer adversaries e.g. the Islamic State, al-Qa’ida, or other violent extremist organizations.

Technology itself will not save military dominance or assure its ability to defend without dominating as Brose outlines. Increased reliance on technology, be it the Military Internet of Things, or autonomous weapons systems, introduces new vulnerabilities and new reliance dynamics. What happens when those systems fail? What happens when the adversary, as China is actively working to do, gets inside America’s kill chain or decision loop and introduces uncertainty, doubt, or confusion? How do you operate in an environment where those very systems on which you rely are used against you or denied to you in the first place?

Brose does not fully explore this question, but acknowledges that China is seeking to do just that—deny our technological advantage by developing its edge while compromising our systems. The benefits of edge computing are explored, as are the benefits of other advanced systems, but the corollary is not. What if those systems fail? The United States Navy is teaching Midshipmen how to use a sextant in case GPS fails. The Marines are training to operate in an information denied environment, as are other services.

If we are to pursue the course outlined by Brose—investing in advanced systems, incentivizing their development, experimenting and fielding, and truly bringing the military into the information age—we equally need to prepare for the possibility that those systems and capabilities fail. We occupy an awkward middle ground at the moment. We assume our systems will be available, leverage information technology in fits and starts (but not as fully as we could), but don’t operate with any alacrity that the very things that give us an edge could fail.

Defense in a Time of Constrained Resources

Brose, interestingly, doesn’t truly address the challenge of achieving the type of military revolution in an era of constrained resources. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn and federal government stimulus, purchasing and fielding the systems he outlines as necessary would be prohibitively expensive. As he rightly notes, the budget process is an exercise in trade-offs—sacrificing this system for that one, or this tool for that tool. Ideally, by changing what is purchased and how it is purchased, one could, in theory, achieve a measure of cost efficiency allowing the government to better apply limited resources to kill chain capabilities.

Sequestration and the Budget Control Act had a markedly deleterious effect on the Department of Defense and military operations and, when combined with a high tempo of operations over the last two decades, the strain on the military is showing. How the Pentagon rebuilds already strained units and capabilities while, simultaneously, investing in and fielding next-generation assets in this environment is left unaddressed by Brose.

Defense without Dominance

Brose’s solution is the need to adopt a strategy of defense without dominance. The United States needs to accept that it cannot assert its military dominance to the degree it was once able to do. Hitherto, the United States could choose the time and place of conflict, the pace at which conflict plays out, and operate with impunity. Nearly every major conflict in recent history took place on America’s calendar and timetable. Slow build-ups of material and personnel, sustained and unchallenged operations, and total domain dominance. That is no longer the case. The United States must become comfortable with operating in contested domains against an adversary that in all likelihood will dictate the start and pace of the conflict, and work to counter America’s very strengths.

Rather, the United States must seek to emulate China’s strategy e.g. deny adversarial dominance. The United States cannot expect to overwhelm the People’s Liberation Army or own the South China Sea battlespace. But the United States can seek to deny China’s dominance of those spaces through the application of advanced technology, disaggregated platforms, pre-positioned materials and equipment, larger numbers of expendable assets, and, crucially, partnerships and alliances in the region.

Kill Chain is a book that Americans should read. It highlights and defines the problems facing the defense enterprise and identifies how America could regain and ensure its competitive edge against a rising China and aggressive Russia. Reshaping the enterprise, overcoming the bureaucratic failings, and creating sufficient incentives to encourage innovation and experimentation is no small task. Perhaps the most troubling realization is that we do not have the luxury of time—the Russian and Chinese threats are here, now, and we can ill-afford the political idleness or intellectual idleness that seems to plague much of the political class today.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare

May 11, 2020

Book Review: The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare by Christian Brose, Hachette Books (April 2020).

I

n the wake of 9/11, the United States first launched a campaign against the Taliban and al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan; later a war against Saddam Hussein; and ultimately continued operations against transnational Salafi-Jihadism in the form of al-Qa’ida and its affiliates, and the Islamic State. This global campaign shaped the preponderance of America’s defense and intelligence efforts, changing how the country looked at the world, how it fought, and what it saw as its most pressing threats. For America, the world, in effect, froze in that post-9/11 construct. It was how we defined ourselves, how we categorized the world, and how we oriented ourselves.

Book Review: The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare by Christian Brose, Hachette Books (April 2020).

The world, however, unsurprisingly continued to turn and we are now finding ourselves in a “return to history” with the re-emergence of Great Power Competition in the form of Russian revanchism and China’s rise. Both countries seek to shape their near abroad to their interests. To do so, they aim to ensure that the United States will not be able to counter their aims or ambitions. In this effort, they have proven markedly successful, radically reshaping themselves to counter America’s strengths while aiming to assert their own primacy.

For all the talk of pivots toward Asia, disengaging from the Middle East, “reset” (or overload) with Russia, and ending the Long War, America finds itself locked in a mentality of sub-national conflict. Conversely, Russia and China are asserting themselves on the international stage with the former causing chaos in cyberspace and invading its neighbors, while the latter implements a literal expansionist foreign policy by creating sea bases on rocky atolls in the South China Sea.

Despite a myriad of warnings, the United States largely rested on its laurels, organized for low-intensity conflict, and allowed its high-intensity capabilities to atrophy—this at a time when Russia and China rapidly developed counter capabilities.

Christian Brose, the late Senator John McCain’s senior policy advisor and staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is exceptionally well placed to contextualize the challenge the United States now faces. Having worked directly for one of, if not the, smartest senators on defense policy during a time of significant global challenges, Brose is uniquely placed to provide an insight into where the United States is and, most importantly, where it should be.

Brose’s book, The Kill Chain, is a deep dive into the twin trends of the reemergence of Russia and China as a military threat to the United States and the rapid growth of technology and its impact on national defense. Putting it simply, Brose weighs the United States’ defense enterprise and finds it wanting. For too long, Washington was fixated on low-intensity, sub-national conflict, while Russia and China sought to counter America’s military preponderance. If things were frozen and static this would be a problem, but with the rapid and exponential development of technology, America is rapidly falling behind, even if it doesn’t recognize that it is doing so.

The very thing that enabled America’s military dominance—centralized coordination, highly capable, yet expensive platforms—now represents a vulnerability. America’s JSTARs aircraft was and remains highly capable, but it is defenseless, as are the KC-47 aerial refueling platforms. America’s space assets—gold-plated, incredibly expensive, and highly specialized—are exceptionally vulnerable to Chinese direct ascent anti-satellite weapons. Carrier battle groups, the most powerful constellation of naval ships ever to sail, are a concentration of assets that are now vulnerable to maneuverable ballistic missiles and hypersonic cruise missiles. Taking one of America’s 11 carriers out of action or rendering it non-combat effective would be a devastating blow. Look at the concern associated with the loss of the USS Theodore Roosevelt due to Covid and the potential impact that its absence could well have.

Indeed, even the possibility (and it is now a very real possibility) that Washington could lose a carrier or part of the GPS constellation to a belligerent China could well give policymakers in the White House and Pentagon a moment of pause. None of these platforms are easily replaceable under ideal considerations and certainly not replaceable in the current architecture. Washington does not have satellites sitting in barns waiting to be put into orbit or carriers in dry dock waiting to be christened.

We have the most advanced, most skilled, most capable fighting force on the planet. We spend more than the next eight countries combined on defense, surely, we cannot be equaled or surpassed? That military dominance was unique in history and is now, as Brose expertly explains, rapidly ebbing—if it isn’t already gone.

We have the most advanced, most skilled, most capable fighting force on the planet. We spend more than the next eight countries combined on defense, surely, we cannot be equaled or surpassed? That military dominance was unique in history and is now, as Brose expertly explains, rapidly ebbing—if it isn’t already gone.

The Future is Now

Brose is an enthusiastic guide to the potential implications of advanced technologies on national defense. From artificial intelligence to quantum computing, from autonomous/intelligence machines to long-range fires, Brose covers what advanced technology could mean for America’s military and how it could be integrated into the defense enterprise.

Brose argues that Washington is too fixated on “platforms”—the tanks, planes, satellites, etc.—that make up the armed forces. This platform-centric approach was, perhaps, appropriate for the industrial era and the Cold War, but is woefully insufficient for today’s high-tech, high-speed warfare—the kind pursued by China and Russia. Rather, we should be pursuing “kill chains” or the linkage of sensor, shooter, and effect across services, platforms, and domains. The defense enterprise is too stove-piped and too inefficient. Too many platforms are segregated from one another. In one incredible example, the F-35 and F-22, the most advanced airframes in the world, cannot share data and must exchange targeting information over the radio, pilot-to-pilot.

Many lay readers will certainly be struck by the fact that the technologies highlighted by Brose are not already in use today or widely fielded. It is a quintessential American arrogance that military dominance is taken for granted. We have the most advanced, most skilled, most capable fighting force on the planet. We spend more than the next eight countries combined on defense, surely, we cannot be equaled or surpassed?

That military dominance was unique in history and is now, as Brose expertly explains, rapidly ebbing—if it isn’t already gone. China and Russia, seeing the military successes of the United States in the post-Cold War environment sought to create strategies to counter America’s strengths while, simultaneously, developing their capabilities to exert their political will.

With Russia, the seizure of Crimea and the current operations in Syria are the culmination of Moscow’s increased defense investment and institutional learning of the lessons of its shortcomings in Georgia in 2008 as well as those from the first and second Chechen Wars, although Brose does not connect these conflicts. For Brose, Russia is of declining importance—its economy is a fraction of the United States and China, its population is declining, and, while it can certainly threaten its neighbors, it is very much of secondary importance.

By contrast, the most pressing and long-term threat is China. Beijing’s inexorable rise places it on a trajectory to surpass the United States in terms of GDP and its investment in its military ensures that it is already a peer competitor. China saw America’s military dominance in the 1991 Gulf War and the conflicts in the Balkans, as well as during the 1995-96 Taiwan Crisis and sought to develop a counter-strategy—and they very much did.

From the DF-21 “carrier-killer” ballistic missiles to hypersonic cruise missiles, advanced air defense networks, counter-space capabilities, cyber weapons, and more, China sought to target the sources of America’s military dominance, as well as the nodes of vulnerability.

How Did We Get Here?

This wasn’t always the case and wasn’t always the way American military innovation occurred. “Military mavericks” like Admiral Hyman Rickover, General Bernard Schriever, and Admiral William Moffett all bucked the trend and were able to field the nuclear navy, create the foundation of the ICBM force, and create the aircraft carrier, respectively. To do so required great feats of personal strength, exceptionally committed top cover, and an appreciation of the threat.

“Victory has many fathers, but failure is an orphan” is an appropriate idiom for military innovation. Here, however, there are many fathers to this failure. While Brose is a bit of an apologist for Congress, the Defense Industrial Base, and the Department of Defense, to excuse them entirely is being too cute by half.

Congress is driven by local politics and self-interest. What is best for the district or state is often as equally important as what is best for the Department of Defense and the country. How much of that platform is built in district X, counts for a great deal on Capitol Hill. The horse-trading that is endemic to the budget process ensures that innovation and forward-looking acquisition takes a back seat to the demands of the two- and four-year election cycle. Even the failure of Congress to deliver these flawed budgets on time affects the management of key programs. Continuing resolutions keep zombie programs alive while preventing new investments. That is, sadly, the nature of the American republic. This is, of course, a gross generalization, but to omit it entirely is to be naïve to politics.  

The Defense Industrial Base, for its part, is a self-interested capital-driven beast. What is best for shareholders is equally as important as what is best for the customer, in this case, the Department of Defense and the U.S. government. That is not to say that there are not patriotic, hard-working, committed Americans at these institutions, but it is to say that there is an additional motivation that drives their calculus. Anything not built or serviced by them is a potential dollar lost—innovation and experimentation are not incentivized or something that can be adequately captured on a quarterly profits sheet.

In the Defense Industrial Base’s defense, it often fails to innovate because it is simply not asked to do so. Here is where the Department of Defense is, perhaps, most culpable. The process by which requirements are identified, acquisitions conducted, and budgets created incentivizes the status quo.

Too often the Pentagon is driven by the pursuit of, for the sake of argument, a coffee cup. The Army wants that specific coffee cup because that is what it has always had and what has always worked. That is a requirement. That requirement ignores, however, other more advanced ways, perhaps, of delivering caffeine to the system. Inverting the question and defining the mission or the objective and aligning acquisitions against that is perhaps a better way of getting to the heart of the problem.

Brose touches on this particularly in the latter portion of the book, in which he goes through potential incentives or incentive models to encourage competition and get the best capability into the military the fastest. Defining the mission set or capability is of paramount importance as is working to acquire a solution that meets the military’s needs.

The Silicon Valley-Washington DC Division

While the Department of Defense grew into the byzantine bureaucracy that exists today, fixated on yesterday’s technologies and past successes, Silicon Valley raced ahead, breaking things along the way, but creating the modern consumer information economy. The divide between the two grew as a result of institutional processes, but also by the counter-culture that underpinned much of Silicon Valley and the early internet, but which has warped into a sycophantic profit-seeking parody of itself. Companies that are unwilling to work with the Department of Defense on moral or ethical grounds are more than willing to do business with the Chinese Communist Party to access the Chinese market and its billion consumers.

China will buy or outright steal technology from western companies, companies that are unwilling to work with the Pentagon. It is a modern-day realization of a quote often (and perhaps incorrectly) attributed to Lenin: “the capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” Western companies are willingly—or unwillingly but naively unaware that they are—giving Beijing technologies that could have a defense or military purpose, further eroding America’s military edge.

Overcoming this divide is certainly on the minds of many within the Pentagon and in Silicon Valley. Part of the solution, as outlined by Brose, is the introduction of smart incentives to encourage companies to work with Washington. This is part of the answer. Providing for competitions and solution/capability-oriented outcomes is a great way to bring in new and novel solutions.

This is, however, only part of the solution. What fundamentally needs to change is the acquisition process itself. Brose entertainingly recounts the story of General Milley and the $17 million solicitations for a replacement for the M9 service pistol, in which the general rightly says he could just go to Cabela’s and purchase enough pistols for that $17 million and get a bulk discount. Cabela’s would almost certainly include a free t-shirt.

The acquisition system that exists today does not incentivize innovation, experimentation, or risk-taking at any level. The irony is that many within the Pentagon recognize and acknowledge this shortcoming. Few if any would, if asked, admit that the process works well, if at all. It is recognized so much and so often that alternative acquisitions mechanisms are created to address these failings. In no other institution but the government would a failure of bureaucracy be solved by creating more bureaucracy, but it is done regularly.

The structure that exists today incentivizes business-as-usual and purchasing the same things and the same platforms. The most successful companies are those that know how to game the system and can afford to play at all. The costs of pursuing government business, when compared to pursuing the consumer electronics or information market, are simply prohibitive. It just does not make fiscal sense to go after a government contract.

The Technology Trap

Brose falls into the trap he cautions others of pursuing, technology as a panacea to the military’s problems. Without question the military at a macro level, as he astutely notes, has failed to keep up with the pace of commercial technological innovation. While there are pockets of innovation and examples where the kill chain is being closed regularly—Special Operations Command springs to mind—these are the exception to the rules. Moreover, and more often than not, these examples are tactical, occur in a permissive or dominated environment, and are oriented against non-peer adversaries e.g. the Islamic State, al-Qa’ida, or other violent extremist organizations.

Technology itself will not save military dominance or assure its ability to defend without dominating as Brose outlines. Increased reliance on technology, be it the Military Internet of Things, or autonomous weapons systems, introduces new vulnerabilities and new reliance dynamics. What happens when those systems fail? What happens when the adversary, as China is actively working to do, gets inside America’s kill chain or decision loop and introduces uncertainty, doubt, or confusion? How do you operate in an environment where those very systems on which you rely are used against you or denied to you in the first place?

Brose does not fully explore this question, but acknowledges that China is seeking to do just that—deny our technological advantage by developing its edge while compromising our systems. The benefits of edge computing are explored, as are the benefits of other advanced systems, but the corollary is not. What if those systems fail? The United States Navy is teaching Midshipmen how to use a sextant in case GPS fails. The Marines are training to operate in an information denied environment, as are other services.

If we are to pursue the course outlined by Brose—investing in advanced systems, incentivizing their development, experimenting and fielding, and truly bringing the military into the information age—we equally need to prepare for the possibility that those systems and capabilities fail. We occupy an awkward middle ground at the moment. We assume our systems will be available, leverage information technology in fits and starts (but not as fully as we could), but don’t operate with any alacrity that the very things that give us an edge could fail.

Defense in a Time of Constrained Resources

Brose, interestingly, doesn’t truly address the challenge of achieving the type of military revolution in an era of constrained resources. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn and federal government stimulus, purchasing and fielding the systems he outlines as necessary would be prohibitively expensive. As he rightly notes, the budget process is an exercise in trade-offs—sacrificing this system for that one, or this tool for that tool. Ideally, by changing what is purchased and how it is purchased, one could, in theory, achieve a measure of cost efficiency allowing the government to better apply limited resources to kill chain capabilities.

Sequestration and the Budget Control Act had a markedly deleterious effect on the Department of Defense and military operations and, when combined with a high tempo of operations over the last two decades, the strain on the military is showing. How the Pentagon rebuilds already strained units and capabilities while, simultaneously, investing in and fielding next-generation assets in this environment is left unaddressed by Brose.

Defense without Dominance

Brose’s solution is the need to adopt a strategy of defense without dominance. The United States needs to accept that it cannot assert its military dominance to the degree it was once able to do. Hitherto, the United States could choose the time and place of conflict, the pace at which conflict plays out, and operate with impunity. Nearly every major conflict in recent history took place on America’s calendar and timetable. Slow build-ups of material and personnel, sustained and unchallenged operations, and total domain dominance. That is no longer the case. The United States must become comfortable with operating in contested domains against an adversary that in all likelihood will dictate the start and pace of the conflict, and work to counter America’s very strengths.

Rather, the United States must seek to emulate China’s strategy e.g. deny adversarial dominance. The United States cannot expect to overwhelm the People’s Liberation Army or own the South China Sea battlespace. But the United States can seek to deny China’s dominance of those spaces through the application of advanced technology, disaggregated platforms, pre-positioned materials and equipment, larger numbers of expendable assets, and, crucially, partnerships and alliances in the region.

Kill Chain is a book that Americans should read. It highlights and defines the problems facing the defense enterprise and identifies how America could regain and ensure its competitive edge against a rising China and aggressive Russia. Reshaping the enterprise, overcoming the bureaucratic failings, and creating sufficient incentives to encourage innovation and experimentation is no small task. Perhaps the most troubling realization is that we do not have the luxury of time—the Russian and Chinese threats are here, now, and we can ill-afford the political idleness or intellectual idleness that seems to plague much of the political class today.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.